A headline in Friday's Journal-World stated, "State support for higher education at low point."
The fact is the fiscal situation facing all of education in Kansas is almost at a crisis point. The current situation did not burst onto the scene in the last year or two. It is a matter that has grown more serious over recent years and been elevated to an even-more-dangerous level by the Kansas Supreme Court's demand that up to $600 million be added to the state's K-12 public school budgets.
According to several state legislators, the K-12 funding and court mandate has "sucked just about all the energy, enthusiasm out of the Legislature. It has fractured legislation." One lawmaker told this reporter, "The storm cloud of K-12 has had an unbelievable impact on the Legislature. I can't tell you the energy that has been sucked out of the Legislature."
He added, "Legislators don't like to be bullied into anything, whether by the courts or by universities, such as Kansas University, or by lobbyists."
Kansas House members did not adjourn their deliberations until 4 a.m. Friday and were exhausted, mad and frustrated.
The legislator quoted above said there is greater skepticism and distrust of KU today than at anytime in recent history. "Many of us have been insulted by their behavior. It has cast a cloud over the entire body and our efforts. In past years, legislators have acted in behalf of the university's needs, based on their performance, their record and their leadership. Now, they try to bully their way through the Legislature using lobbyists and untrue threats. Their actions are going to come back and haunt them in the years to come."
Strong words, but the feelings are strong.
The big question facing lawmakers is where are they going to find the additional funding to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.
This demand for millions of dollars is placing the state on a dangerous road to a costly collision of K-12 schools, Medicaid recipients and higher education.
There is no way to fund all of these needs to the levels said to be necessary by proponents of the various interests. K-12 will be funded to some degree, one way or another, but two to five years from now, funding will be dangerously low or possibly nonexistent for Medicaid or higher education.
It is a mess, and Kansas deserves better.
Education is terribly fragmented in Kansas. No one is looked upon as the acknowledged leader, the most respected voice for education. There is growing unhappiness among other state universities with the bullying manner of KU officials and the unwillingness to work together. The recent flap over how $5 million a year for five years should be funneled to the KU Medical Center for cancer research angered officials at other schools because KU requested the money without approval of the Kansas Board of Regents. This does not build respect and a desire to cooperate.
There needs to be a gathering of chancellors, university presidents, school superintendents, principals and teachers to forge a strategy to address the fiscal crisis. Such a gathering would help focus the public spotlight on the huge constituency this group serves. It is hoped this would motivate the public, as well as lawmakers, to quit their games and get to work on how to properly fund all of education. As one observer noted, "Everyone in the state, one way or another, falls under the education umbrella."
Sadly, it is almost impossible to get all education interests to work together or cooperate. First, there is little, if any, genuine leadership. Next, it is foolish to think those in the K-12 fraternity are going to share anything they might be gaining at this time. K-12 schools are the 800-pound gorilla. The regents schools are not working together, particularly after recent actions by KU.
As another observer said, "Everyone is sucking out of the education money trough with their own straw. They don't care about the others, just as long as they get what they think they deserve."
The fact is, for one reason or another, education has not told its story. It is competing for dollars with many other interests, and they are getting beat.
What can be done to encourage state lawmakers, state leaders and education leaders to come together with a genuine desire to work for the common good of the state and its people to address the challenge of properly funding education?
Competition and excellence is what is driving our country, as well as our competition: China, India and South Korea. These other countries realize now is the time for them to seize a position of global leadership. What are we doing in Kansas? Fighting among ourselves, with little cooperation, little leadership and no grand plan while rising tuition is putting a college education out of reach for many able students.
In-state tuition costs for KU, for example, have risen 99.2 percent since 2000, with fees up 34.1 percent and total per-semester costs up 88.1 percent. University officials are quick to say KU still is a bargain, but tell that to those writing the checks.
Rather than looking at rising tuition costs at KU as a bargain, it might be more accurate to acknowledge that placing more and more burden on the students and their parents is an admission of failure, the inability of the state to pay its reasonable share of a college education.
Also, arguing that the reason Kansas doesn't do a better job of funding higher education is that many legislators do not have college degrees is hollow and shallow. This state's history, as well as our nation's history, shows those without a good, solid education are those who usually are the most committed to making sure future generations have educational opportunities. Don't try to pass the blame to those in the Kansas Legislature who do not have a college education. That's a cop-out.
It looks as if Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has an excellent chance to serve another four years as Kansas governor. It is hoped she will seize the education problem as one of her top challenges and, in so doing, get Kansas back on course. Gov. Bill Graves could have done it in his second term. He had large majorities in both the House and Senate and, because he no plans to seek further elected office, he didn't have to worry about stepping on toes. Unfortunately, he missed a rare opportunity to set a high standard of leadership.
It is hoped Gov. Sebelius has the vision, courage and leadership to demand better performance by those in education as well as by state legislators.
Indeed, the K-12 funding puzzle is sucking the energy and enthusiasm out of the Legislature, and the court's demands are sucking the state's coffers dry. It's far past time for educators to get their act together, to show some leadership, for KU to work with the other regents universities and for lawmakers to work in the best interests of the state rather than focusing their efforts on trying to make some group or individual look good or bad.